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HUNTINGTON — A dispute has erupted over a $2.5 million POWER grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission that would deliver high-speed broadband to Huntington.

Huntington Mayor Steve Williams says Comcast and corporate telecommunications lobbyists are actively try to stop the city from receiving the grant funding for its “Thundercloud” project.

“Unfortunately, we are learning that Comcast, which only provides a fraction of the level of high-speed broadband that they claim to provide, is actively trying to torpedo this project and our grant application,” Williams said on Monday. “At a critical time when we are trying to improve high-speed broadband and the economic outlook of our community, Comcast is attempting to squash us like a bug.”

However, Mark Polen, director of government relations and advocacy with LGCR Government Solutions LLC, a subsidiary of the law firm of Lewis Glasser Casey & Rollins PLLC, in Charleston, who serves as executive director of the West Virginia Cable Telecommunications Association, which represents the state’s major cable broadband providers, including Comcast and others, said it was the ARC that reached out to providers.

“As a part of its due diligence efforts in reviewing the Thundercloud proposal, the Appalachian Regional Commission staff reached out to all providers currently operating within the footprint of the Thundercloud project. The ARC requested these providers to submit information to it concerning the level of broadband services available in the project area for both residential and commercial customers, as well as for information on what services could be delivered if a customer had a higher level need,” Polen said.

“It is my understanding that at least four providers have provided the commission with information indicating that significant levels of service from multiple providers are currently available in the project area.”

Williams said Thundercloud and city teams reached out to businesses and civic customers of business to confirm that broadband service speeds are not adequate and do not meet the speed standards established by the ARC. He said Huntington guided 12 customers using existing providers through reliable speed test trials.

“The actual speeds being delivered by Comcast at the customers tested show results that are mostly bare fractions of the speeds promised to, and paid for by, these customers,” Williams said. “For instance, Huntington City Hall’s speed test showed Comcast speeds less than 1% upload speed, and only 7% download speed, of the contracted amount that the city and the taxpayers of Huntington pay for.”

Comcast Beltway Region Vice President of Communications Kristie Fox said Comcast continues to operate one of the most extensive fiber-based networks in the country.

“We have invested to make broadband widely available for decades, delivering speeds up to 2 Gbps for residential customers and up to 10 Gbps for business customers, including those in Barboursville and Huntington, West Virginia, where gigabit speeds have been available since 2017,” she said in a prepared statement.

Fox added that Comcast has invested more than $300 million in its technology and infrastructure that includes more than 390 miles of Comcast fiber and cable plant in the Huntington system, which includes the City of Huntington, the Village of Barboursville and towns in Putnam County, including Bancroft, Buffalo, Eleanor and Poca.

She said while Comcast can’t verify the conditions under which a speed test was conducted, the company’s engineers have detected no widespread connectivity issues and, since the beginning of the pandemic, Comcast has been conducting over 700,000 daily speed tests in support of delivering the fastest speeds to our customers, according to Fox.

Thundercloud project

Williams said the Thundercloud project began seven years ago when the city partnered with the state and the nonprofit organization Thundercloud, which consists of local entities including Marshall University, Marshall Health and Mountain Health Network, to apply for the grant.

“Thundercloud was developed to provide world-class broadband connections to our area for economic development,” Sen. Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, said. “The project has the potential to be replicated in the greater Appalachian region.”

Plymale said Thundercloud was created so that West Virginians would be making decisions for West Virginia toward resolving the state’s lack of adequate internet service in unserved and underserved areas.

“I am personally frustrated that most of our broadband connectivity decisions are being made by giant corporations that are not domiciled in the Appalachian region and do not understand the injustice that we suffer with a lack of connectivity,” he said.

Williams says in 2013, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued a “Gigabit City Challenge” calling on all states to deploy gigabit-speed Internet access in at least one city. West Virginia and its Broadband Enhancement Council chose Huntington as its pilot city and in 2014 a gigabit feasibility study was developed.

Huntington established a citywide broadband viability analysis, street-by-street network geospatial mapping analysis with initial design scenarios, a network-cost analysis, a demand and use analysis and a pricing plan analysis for capital debt service and operations, according to Williams.

In 2014, Huntington made the “Gigabit City” goal a cornerstone of its effort to win the America’s Best Communities Prize, which Huntington achieved as the nation’s grand prize winner in April 2017.

In 2016, Williams launched a “Gigabit City Task Force” led by top technology leaders in business, educational institutions, the health sector and other leaders in the region to make sure high-speed broadband infrastructure is deployed in Huntington.

“That Task Force determined that it would seek public-private partnerships with other entities to be able to attract and establish high-speed broadband that could foster economic development,” Williams said.

Williams said in 2019, the Huntington Gigabit City Task Force reached out to private sector companies asking for their partnership on the Gigabit City goals. He said Huntington seeks partnerships for broadband deployment, but Comcast and Segra ignored repeated requests.

“Despite repeated emails and calls to both Comcast and Segra (formerly Lumos Networks, but now owned by a European venture capital firm), Comcast and Segra both blew Huntington off and failed to respond to Huntington’s requests,” Williams said. “They didn’t so much as return our calls. Other companies that were contacted early in 2020 about our goals for the community never responded.”

Williams claims the city gave Comcast an opportunity to present a proposal for the project, but instead broadband provider Segra sent a letter on Friday asking the ARC to refuse to provide funding to support the project.

“Now, they appear to be coming out of the woodwork, pushed by corporate lobbyists, in a last-minute effort to thwart Huntington’s progress,” Williams said.

Public hearings

Williams is calling for a public hearing as soon as possible to investigate whether Comcast and other private companies are providing promised levels of broadband service they claim.

“This will also allow businesses, citizens, educational institutions and the health sector to speak out about their satisfaction with the quality of broadband investment in the region,” the mayor said.

Williams said the public hearing would take place in October, but an exact date was not announced.

“These hearings will determine whether big corporate involvement in Huntington is delivering on promises and supporting economic development and community progress, or not,” Williams said.

Williams says Huntington seeks information about the availability of this private corporate infrastructure, its affordability for Huntington businesses, whether speed tests show that promised service is being delivered and whether corporate franchise agreements with Huntington are being fulfilled.

“This information can be compared against what a nonprofit and public-oriented broadband approach could bring to the greater Huntington community,” he said. “It is important to understand whether European venture capitalists and massive international conglomerates will move West Virginia forward, because they simply have not done so yet.”

Williams claims the Thundercloud project will boost economic development and provide a better quality of service at a lower cost than any private company.

“We are optimistic that the ARC will view it the same way,” Williams said.

Follow reporter Fred Pace at Facebook.com/FredPaceHD and via Twitter @FredPaceHD.

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